Dr. Eugenie Blang
The Significance of Dred Scott
Many times during our class discussions and lectures we tried to examine the stages leading up to the succession and Civil War in America. During the critical time period of the middle 19th century, the Dred Scott v. Sanford decision of the Supreme Court was one of those major treads on the pathway to secession. The man Dred Scott was taken to Missouri with Peter Blow as a slave from Virginia and sold. His new master from Missouri then moved to the free state of Illinois for a while, but later moved back to Missouri. Following his master's passing, Scott asserted that since he had resided in a free state, he was inevitably a free citizen. Dred Scott, originally a slave in Missouri, had been taken by his owner, John Emerson, into Illinois, where slavery had been prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and into the Louisiana Territory, where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise. After his return to Missouri, Scott brought suit against Emerson's widow, claiming that he was free by reason of his residence in free territory. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against him, but after his ownership was transferred to Mrs. Emerson's brother, John F. A. Sanford of New York, Scott brought a similar suit in federal court. The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) held that a black slave could not become a citizen under the U.S. Constitution based on that Scott had not become free by virtue of his residence in a territory covered by the Missouri Compromise, since that legislation was unconstitutional. This was viewed as a proslavery decision by the abolitionists, and the case probably hastened the coming of the Civil War. That issue aside, it was the second time that the Court had declared an act of Congress unconstitutional, the first having occurred 54 years earlier, in Marbury vs. Madison. For the first time since Marbury vs. Madison in 1803 (and only the second time ever) the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress (the Missouri Compromise) null and void. The decision also lowered the Court's prestige in the North and widened the sectional cleavage by moving Southerners from the position that slavery could not be kept out of the territories to the assertion that it must be protected in them. Most people, whether for or against the decision, viewed it as a political decision and not a legal one. The Court's decision of 7 against, and 2 for Scott was declared on March 6, 1857. Due to the variance of opinions on why the Court decided as they did (all seven justices who decided against Scott wrote opinion papers for the case), the opinion of Justice Taney is generally cited for the majority. According to Taney, the Court decided that Scott (and hence all negro slaves or their descendants) was not a citizen of the United States or the state of Missouri, and thus not entitled to sue in the federal courts. Justice Taney then went beyond this point and ruled on the entire issue of slavery in federal territories, claiming that slaves were property and therefore the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. As stated by Supreme Court Justice C. J. Taney, "In considering this controversy, two questions arise: First, was Scott, together with his family, free in Missouri by reason of his stay in the territory of the United States hereinbefore mentioned? And second, if they were not, is Scott himself free by reason of his removal to Rock Island, in the state of Illinois?" Both of these questions led to an even greater and more central question: "Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied by that instrument to the citizen?" The slavery debate presented...